With NFL quarterback Kurt Warner waiting in the wings, a standing ovation greets Special Olympian students in a packed Phoenix Central High School auditorium, capping a school-wide initiative to encourage respect for people with disabilities.
Warner and his wife, Brenda, soon enter the auditorium to address the student body, and their appearance is personal. Their son Zack, 20, is legally blind and physically disabled due to a childhood brain injury.
"It's easy for us to look around and say someone doesn't look like a champion," Kurt, 38, of the Arizona Cardinals, tells the students. "But it's not what they look like on the outside; it's about what's on the inside."
The Warners' First Things First Foundation partnered with the school last March, allowing about 125 student volunteers to experience what it's like to be disabled. Some students, for instance, were confined to a wheelchair for a day, some wore goggles that simulated blindness, and others had to find ways to communicate without speaking.
"This program is meant to open up your world, open up your mind and, eventually, to open up your hearts," Brenda, 42, tells the students, including Mary Sayegh, 17, blind since birth.
"It makes me feel good, because there are so many other kids who can learn from what the Warners are doing," Mary says.
Like Mary, the Warners understand what it's like to overcome hardships.
Despite being a Super Bowl champion, Kurt's journey to football fame wasn't without its obstacles. After college in the mid-1990s, no one was calling him to play professional football and, to make ends meet, he stocked grocery shelves for several months. Brenda, a former corporal in the U.S. Marines, faced life as a single mother of two, including a special-needs child, after a failed marriage to a fellow soldier. Together, Kurt and Brenda have endured two miscarriages, the death of Brenda's parents in a tornado, and Kurt's roller-coaster football career, which at times included boos and jeers from spectators and critics.
Today, the Warners live in a large home in Paradise Valley, Ariz. (pop. 13,664), a bedroom community of Phoenix. After the Warners married in 1997, Kurt adopted Zack and his sister, Jesse, 17, and the couple had five other children: Kade, 11; Jada, 8; Elijah, 5; and 3-year-old twins Sienna and Sierra. In March, Kurt renewed his contract with the Cardinals in a two-year, $23 million deal after taking the long-shot franchise to the Super Bowl a month earlier.
Life with the Warners is about balancing faith, family and football.
"We don't have to schedule in our kids," Kurt says. "They're priority number one, whether it's brushing their teeth or kissing them goodnight when they go to bed."
Raised in the Catholic church, Kurt's faith crystallized for him in his mid-20s after his future wife, teammates and a pastor friend challenged him with questions about his beliefs. Today, he says ushering others to believe in Jesus Christ is more important than throwing touchdown passes, and he frequently speaks at churches on topics such as compassion and using one's gifts to help alleviate the suffering of others.
"I think that's something we're called to do as Christians, and I think that is something our foundation and our lifestyle has allowed us to do," he says.
Ups and downs
Raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Kurt attended the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and, during his senior year, hung out at a bar where he noticed an attractive young woman wearing a denim mini-skirt and red boots. At the end of a line dance, they danced the rest of the night together until Brenda dropped a bombshell as he walked her to her car. "Before you leave, I want you to know something," she said. "I'm divorced, and I have two kids."
She assumed she would never see him again. Instead, Kurt showed up the next morning at her door holding a rose and ready to meet her children.
A high school cheerleading champion in Cedar Falls (pop. 36,145), Brenda joined the Marines after graduation, married and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. But after Zack struck his head on the bathtub in a 1989 accident, doctors warned that even if her son lived, he always would have developmental problems. Brenda requested a military discharge and the family settled in Cedar Rapids until her marriage fell apart while she was pregnant with their second child.
By the time she met Kurt in 1992, Brenda was supporting her children with food stamps and garage sales. Meanwhile, Kurt was dropped by the Green Bay Packers in 1994 after only five weeks at training camp. To pay the bills, he took a minimum-wage night job at a grocery store.
"I had a belief I really could play football," Kurt says. "But everybody around you is saying, 'Dude, this isn't realistic; you work in a grocery store.'"
In 1995, Kurt landed with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League, which "wasn't what I was hoping for, but we knew the bills were going to be paid," he recalls.
Brenda was an early believer in Kurt, however. "I felt he was doing what he was created to do," she says of her husband's gridiron abilities. In 1997, a year after her parents were killed in a tornado in Mountain View, Ark., Brenda and Kurt married.
"It's hard to know how compatible you are unless you've been through stuff," Kurt says. "In our situation, there was a lot of stuff going on in our lives. Through that, we might have had our moments where we didn't get along, but we still stayed together and worked through it. That's marriage in a nutshell."
First things first
Marriage agreed with the couple, and career breaks soon followed for Kurt. After a season in NFL Europe, he landed with the St. Louis Rams in 1999 as backup to quarterback Trent Green. A pre-season injury sidelined Green, and Kurt made the most of his opportunity, leading the Rams on a Cinderella ride to the Super Bowl title in 2000 and earning both the league and Super Bowl MVP awards.
For Brenda, the "unbelievable" turnaround in Kurt's career presented the couple with a sacred responsibility to help others struggling through adversity. "The balance in my life is to see what we do with it," she says.
In 2001, Kurt and Brenda started the First Things First Foundation in St. Louis and developed the charity as his career took him briefly to the New York Giants and eventually Arizona. Launched with a drive to give warm coats to needy children, the foundation has helped single parents become homeowners, hosted sick children and their families at Disney World, assisted people reclaiming their homes from Midwestern floods, and taught football basics to Special Olympians.
When he stops playing football, Kurt says the foundation's work will continue, with Brenda by his side.
"We're going to have our bumps in the road," he says, "but nothing is ever going to stop us."